Sunni Arab leaders in Iraq are renewing their warnings of a possible break up of the country, following news that authorities in the semi-autonomous northern Kurdish region have allowed a Norwegian company to drill for oil, without the approval of the central government in Baghdad.
At a ceremony last Tuesday to mark the start of drilling near the border city of Zakho, the prime minister of the Kurdish northern region, Nechirvan Barzani, made a comment, which shocked many Iraqis.
He said that there was - in his words - no way Kurdistan would accept a role by the central government in controlling its natural resources.
Mr. Barzani then gave his blessings to the Oslo-based DNO Company to start the oil exploration, in accordance with an agreement signed more than a year ago between the DNO and the Kurdistan Democratic Party.
Mr. Barzani is the nephew of Kurdish politician Massoud Barzani, who heads the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party in the northern enclave, where the drilling is taking place.
In Baghdad, a spokesman for Iraq's prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, confirmed that the government did not know anything about the oil deal, until it was announced last week.
Sunni Arab leaders say the news is deeply worrying.
Under an arrangement enshrined in the country's new constitution, the central government has the right to manage and distribute oil and gas revenues from existing fields. But the charter is vague on who is ultimately responsible for exploration and production in new fields.
The vast majority of untapped oil is believed to be in the Shi'ite-dominated south of the country and the Kurdish-dominated north.
On Sunday, Kurdish lawmaker Fuwad Massoum insisted that the federalist language in the constitution gave regional governments the authority to cut new energy deals, with or without Baghdad's approval.
Mr. Massoum says it was the Iraqis themselves who approved a new constitution in October, which he says grants provinces the right to explore new oil and gas projects as they see fit.
Sunni Arabs, many of whom live in the oil-poor center of the country, argue that giving Shi'ite and Kurdish regions such powers will leave Sunnis unable to share in the oil wealth. A large number of Sunnis who oppose federalism voted against the charter in a referendum in October.
There is still hope among some Sunni leaders that the Kurdish oil deal is nothing more than a one-time effort to boost support for the Kurdish slate (Kurdish candidates) in national elections later this month.
Such a pro-independence stance is popular among many Kurds in Iraq, who suffered for decades under Sunni Arab dictator Saddam Hussein, and remain protective of their autonomous status. ///
One prominent Sunni politician, Saleh Mutlak, warned that, if the Kurds continue to act on their own, it could ignite a long-feared civil war.
"Federalism in Iraq, as it was written in the constitution, will lead to a civil war between the Kurds and Arabs, and between Sunnis and Shi'ites," Mr. Mutlak says. "There are some extremists among the Sunnis who are asking for a federalist state in the Sunni area, because they want to bring the Mujahedeen here and start a civil war with the Shi'ites in the south. Then, there are also some Shi'ite extremists, who want federalism, because they want to join Iran in the future. We have been warning the Americans, and we have been telling the world, 'Look, federalism in Iraq, the result of it, is a civil war.'"
Under the constitution, the task of spelling out how oil resources will be allocated will be left to Iraq's new national assembly that will be elected December 15.
Sunni Arabs, who make up roughly 20 percent of the population, but largely boycotted elections in January, say they are determined to participate in large numbers this time, and elect enough representatives in parliament to have a voice in Iraq's future.